Maybe you clicked on this just to tell yourself, "Oh no, not another one of these posts".
I was at an event taking pictures, when I noticed a woman going around with a small digital camera. Just as she walked by me, a couple of people said to me "we'd love to see the pictures when they're ready." So I said "I'll show you when I get the film back, in about two weeks".
The lady with the digital camera got a real kick out of that, apparently. She actually snickered. And that gets me thinking. Can there really be a film vs. digital comparison now?
There sure can.
"Film vs. digital" conjures recollections of some pretty strident arguments on the Internet. Some of the digital crowd were downright ruthless on Internet forums in the early years. Their $4,300 digital cameras were only marginally better than today's phones, even as they called loudly and often for the demise of all things film.
I'm not going to deal in their terms. Instead, let's talk about why film is such a great medium. A few comparisons are in order, but we'll try to keep things cordial.
The Side Issue of Megapixels
Resolution is not the central issue in film vs. digital. Too many people are too concerned about megapixels. By the time digital cameras were somewhere about six megapixels, they stopped looking raggedy-edged for the most part. It was then that they started to have an apparent resolution advantage over 35mm. (I emphasize the word "apparent").
I've thought about lens technology improvements, sharpening algorithms, etc. These are probably all factors in that "apparent" resolution advantage.
Even so, the biggest factor is scanning.
Poor scans limit the perceived quality of film. A lot of early "film vs. digital" comparisons relied on outdated scanning technology. Today I know for certain those old scans couldn't unlock the resolution of 35mm film... but it's OK, because I've solved the problem to my own satisfaction.
Flatbed scanners yield images nowhere near as sharp as the actual negative or slide. The biggest reason is scanner optics, mainly focus. The film plane isn't necessarily at the best height. The plane of sharpest focus could be somewhere above or below it. We're talking about paper-thicknesses here. It isn't practical to set this at the factory. One scanner could vary from another. The flatbed scanner should have some kind of height control that you can adjust yourself. Finally, even a Nikon Coolscan is not a drum scanner. And even there, operator skill has something to do with your scan quality!
If you use good scanning equipment, you can eliminate these problems for the most part. 35mm film inherently surpasses most digicams currently out there. (And see "Film vs. the D800" for some thoughts on the newest DSLR's.) A good scan should be somewhere in the 12 to 25 megapixel range, although with a flatbed scanner you can easily get scans that are "nominally" 40 megapixels or higher.
Many of my scans on this site were done with an Epson V500-- an entry-level scanner-- with little or no unsharp masking. If we're talking about resolution, it's not meaningful to compare these to a DSLR. (If we're talking about tonality, which is more more important... even flatbed film-scans beat digital.)
Want amazing resolution? Try the bigger formats.
4x5 sheet film has an effective resolution of somewhere between 110 and 300 megapixels, depending on whom you ask. Medium format film is somewhere between 50 and 100 MP, which still far surpasses digital.
Camera retailers are starting to tell us that MF digital cameras are "within reach", but they must be kidding. I don't care how many weddings a person does; $20,000 for a digital camera is still exorbitant. On the other hand, a medium format film camera can be had for anywhere from $50 to $500, depending on model. A couple of models are $1,000 to $2,000, fully loaded. You'd have to buy an awful lot of 120 film, complete with pro developing, before you hit the $20,000 mark. Even at 500 rolls a year, you wouldn't even be halfway there.
Once again: scan quality is the biggest bottleneck in the whole thing. I've even seen large format scans that had that harsh digital look... because the person either didn't know what they were doing, or else their scanner and software were older. (Or, they got lazy and relied on auto-levels... see my Slide Film 2012-'13 article). Don't get too hung up on that. They can take that 4x5 negative or transparency and re-scan it later with something better. The digital camera's output, on the other hand, is going to remain exactly what it is.
Even if we get stuck on the resolution issue and discount all the other reasons to use film (including this one), the fact is that medium and large format film are still far ahead of anything that's remotely affordable in the digital world.
I emphasize the word "affordable".
Kodak Ektar 100
(Would have been easy to crank the saturation, but I liked it this way.)
Medium format digital is not a meaningful substitute for 120 film. The above picture-- scanned on a cheap scanner-- was taken with a camera costing about 1% of what you'd pay for a medium format digital camera. You read that right: 1/100th the cost. Instead of $20,000, it's more like $200. Even if MF digital came down to that level, I'd still choose the film.
Even if we stay in the megapixel arena, nothing in the digital world can compare with large format film. 4x5, 5x7, 8x10... this is the height of photography.
Even though we just got done talking about resolution, that's not even the point. There really are a couple of applications where digital is the better choice, but it's missing something. To me it's not a minor detail, it's practically the whole show. We really are comparing two entirely different things. Let's find out why.
Why is digital still not a replacement for film? Why is it never going to be? For starters, film has a "look" to it that comes through, whether you're using a Leica M3 or a toy plastic camera with a plastic lens (which I used for this picture).
As long as I can take pictures like this with it, I am going to be one happy artist. The camera has one shutter speed, a one-element lens, and what.... two or three aperture settings? Aside from the plastic, that's technology from about 100 years ago.
What is it about the look of film? I guess if I had to summarize it...
Film Has Soul
One thing I like about film is that is has life, even without doing anything to it in Photoshop. There's a depth. A warmth. Maybe that's because analog is infinite. True, there are finite end points of light and dark, but there's an infinite number of values in between. Digital handles this by making a finite series of approximations. Something gets lost in the process.
Warmth, cold, brightness, tone... shadow, distance, color, happiness... these are analog qualities. A person doesn't say "Today, I'm happy in the quantity x+1". They say "Today, I'm happier". Life is mostly analog. Analog photos have more life to them. Somehow I don't think that is a coincidence.
With pictures of any kind the medium is going to have an influence on the message. An oil painting looks like an oil painting... because it is an oil painting. Marshall McLuhan went so far as to say "the medium is the message". I don't know if that's true for every case, but it's definitely a truism.
Film, like oil paints, has a "something" that becomes part of the image it conveys. I don't care what format we're talking about. A 35mm half-frame has that "something", too.
Even 110 film had it, as tiny and "low-res" as the negatives were. You can make an oil painting with small, coarse brushes, but you can't make an oil painting with acrylic.
The look is just part of it. I love the whole experience of using film.
Choosing from different film types with different qualities of color, tone, light sensitivity, and grain.
Choosing from different cameras with their own interesting, yet simple, sets of controls.
Loading the film.
Hearing the mechanical clicks of a winding knob.
A big ol' sheet of 120 film advancing slowly in the back of the camera.
Or, an even bigger sheet of 4x5 film, loaded up into its film holder.
Or, a roll of 35mm reaching the next frame.
Sizing up scenes and deciding if they're worth a photograph.
Estimating the distance to the subject, if necessary.
Clicking the shutter when it's all ready.
Waiting for the pictures like a Christmas present.
The eager anticipation of opening a pack of photos for the first time.
"The pictures are here!"
Being able to pick up the negatives and hold them up to the light.
Being able to make prints from them thirty years later.
Having a real, tangible original to keep.
Not worrying that a memory card is going to quit without warning.
Most of all, I love the authenticity and the richness of film. Velvia, Provia, Ektar, Superia, HP5, Portra... these are just a few of the great reasons to use film cameras.
Slowing It Down
The mechanical aspect of film cameras can add to the overall enjoyment, but it also goes hand-in-hand with more serious photography. The older camera designs make you slow down and think a bit before taking a shot. Using a TLR or an old press camera is worlds away from using a digital camera. And if you're really a shutterbug, it's pure joy.
The gear is external to the film as a medium; and yet, it isn't. The form follows the function. It really is part of the whole "film mystique" that can't be replaced adequately. Even if the digicam industry would make a digital look-alike to the TLR or the 1940's press camera, it just wouldn't have the credibility. Sure, it might be cool, but it wouldn't be the same.
Isn't Digital Cheaper in the Long Run?
As many have said, it's a huge mistake to view art strictly in terms of commodity cost. Cost can't be entirely ignored, but let's think about this.
More than one person has realized it isn't that cost effective to go buying a new digital camera every couple years. The purchase of one or more backup units (in case a sensor fails during an event......) further reduces any cost advantage. We haven't even considered the expensive software and updates that are necessary just to be able to work with proprietary "RAW" files. Did you ever wonder why the new digital cameras don't simply shoot in 48-bit uncompressed TIFF? I don't know what the stated reason is for not doing it, but I'm sure lot of it has to do with making sure you have to buy special software.
We've already established that we're comparing wholly different things. First, digital is not film.
Second, commodity-based thinking is wrecking the art. In fact, many newcomers lack any concept of covering their overhead costs. They also place no value on their work.
No professional can compete with that, even if they sell all their film gear and step into digital.
Come to think of it, that's the biggest mistake a pro could make, unless maybe you're a sports photographer or you work for the newspaper. I promise I'm not trying to insult anyone here, but digital photography has opened up the field to a number of relatively unskilled persons. Arthur Fellig used to get amazing pictures with a one-shot Speed Graphic camera, developing his 4x5 negatives in the trunk of his car. Nowadays you can just about point a lens at something, press a button, and a computer figures out what to do from there.
To compete with yard-sale vendors, a person soon has to offer yard-sale quality. Like it or not, this is what has happened with digital. That venue is only going to get worse. Someday, everyone will have a 20-megapixel cell phone. Even now, there are cell phones that give the "DSLR-tist" a run for the money.
The pro photographer has to offer something different.
Compare With the Eye
One is film, the other digital. Can you tell which is which?
Snag Tree With Drab-Whatever Sky
If the real scene had appeared this drab,
I probably would have left without taking any pictures.
Now for another version...
Snag Tree With Awesome Purple-Pink-Red Sky
Was the real scene this cool-looking?
Maybe not, but it's how I remember it.
By now you probably figured out which one is the film. (Hint: not the drab one.)
This was 35mm Velvia 100 slide film, by the way. (Order yours with this link and it helps keep my site going. Much appreciated.)
The clouds in the Velvia shot have more than just better colors. They also have more of what I'd call "tone detail".
The film scan originally had less apparent shadow detail, so I had to adjust some things to get it to look right. One of the upsides of digital is its great shadow detail (though its highlight detail is crummy). But what's more important is the color and tone.
I've found that even if I color-enhance the digital photos and take the edge off the harshness, there is still something I prefer about the film pictures. I also enjoy the fact that I have a box of actual slides, rather than a bunch of ones and zeroes that can evaporate spontaneously.
That reminds me. Why is the digital picture smaller? Well, it's been a couple years since I first put these up here. I went to update the pictures with larger versions... and I couldn't find the full-res digital. I think I might have erased it, but I still have the slide.
By the way, if you're ever wanting to compare resolution, realize that "grain reduction" will soften the film scans. Many of the photos on this site were scanned with a cheap flatbed, and I used grain reduction for quite a few of them. One day I decided I liked the pictures more grainy, and that's when I noticed something. They're not that much grainier with it turned off, but they're definitely sharper!
More and more, I find myself putting away the digital camera and moving back to film... especially slide film. (More thoughts on the subject here.) Oh, sure, I keep the digital around for some uses (such as, scoping out pictures I want to come back and take with film...). They're both valid tools for today's artist, but for me, film has the magic.
I know I'm not the only one who thinks this way. A lot of us are coming to the same conclusion.
If something is worth going out of your way to photograph,
it's worth photographing with film.
it's worth photographing with film.
Incidentally, it's safe to say I never get tired of photographing trees... or sunsets. Trees, because they're always handy and they never have bad hair days... and sunsets, because who doesn't like a good sunset?
There Must Be Giraffes Here Somewhere
Fujichrome Velvia 100
There are so many reasons to keep using film. If you've never tried it before, I hope you'll consider it.
Late Winter Sunset
Kodak Elite Chrome 100
(Fujichrome Provia 100, still being made, is comparable to this stuff.)
I hope you've enjoyed this article. And one more time: if you get joy from digital photography, then by all means continue doing it. No real artist would ever tell you to stop using the medium that makes you comfortable.
One more thing. You can help me out a lot by buying your film or anything else through the links on this site. Just a couple favorites, off the top of my head: pick up your Velvia 100 in pro packs of 35mm here; 120 size here. You can get the legendary Velvia 50 in 35mm here. (You can get the 120 version here.) In the realm of color negative film, I really like Kodak Ektar a lot; 35mm pro packs here, and pro packs of Ektar in 120 are here.
Thanks for reading!
Have a good one,
Shopping through these links doesn't cost you any extra, and it helps me keep this website going. Thanks again!
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